On Running Away, Returning, and Teaching the Story of Jonah

September 24, 2020Monica Steiner

Several years ago, well before the pandemic descended upon the land, as I drove my sons to and from preschool, I'd tell them the story of Jonah

God calls Jonah to go to the land of Nineveh to tell the Ninevites to turn away from wickedness and idolatry. Jonah hears God's call... and flees! He hides on a ship bound for a faraway land, endures a raging ocean storm, is tossed into the sea, and resides for three days in the belly of a fish (or whale). Jonah flees. Close to death, Jonah prays, is physically saved by God... and then? He goes to Nineveh. 

Over and over and over I'd tell this story, both because the boys liked it and because I did. I'd play to their certain glee at, “God called: 'Jonah!' and Jonah said...'No!'” The boys loved Jonah's audacity in the face of his Mom... er, God. I loved them loving Torah. 

Jonah's saying "No!" is, of course, more than the funny petulance I imbued it with for my boys' delight. He is at once deeply childish and deeply relatable. Jonah shows us (and maybe God, too) that the hardest thing for a human being to do is to respond coherently to an Infinite God. 

It was perhaps necessary for Jonah to run, to find a deep enough inner space from which to grapple with a Divine call to Prophecy. It was only in praying to God literally "from the depths" that Jonah could find in himself a big enough response, to evolve into a big enough person to partner with God. 

The miracle in The Book of Jonah, I tell my boys, is not the Divine Voice, the raging storm, or the fish's belly. The miracle is that when Jonah finally arrives in Nineveh and calls out God's warning, the people listen. They obey God without a blink, without resistance. They repent and are saved. 

And even then, like a child, Jonah still doesn't quite get it. He gets angry, he asks the same question my boys always did at this point: Why did God send Jonah instead of just telling the Ninevites? Jonah says, “This is why I fled! For I know that You are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in kindness, renouncing punishment.” Jonah, like each of us, still cannot fathom his part in God's miracles.

We see in Jonah's flight that it is the hardest thing for a human being to hear and heed God's call. If God had simply spoken to the Ninevites, the story suggests, they would have acted quite naturally human and paid no heed. It was only in Jonah's human grappling and spiritual evolution that enabled him to become a partnering bridge, sparking a miracle between Divine will and human nature. 

We hear the story of Jonah on Yom Kippur, as an example of the power of repentance and redemption. But my favorite thing about this story is how perfectly messy it is to heed God's call. We can feel enamored and repelled by God all at the same time. We can be in love and also deeply unsettled. We can – and maybe must – run away to our deepest selves, through pain and discomfort in the face of ultimate questions, forgetting that there is no "away" from God. We are not the Ninevites, waiting for a prophet. We are Jonah, running and praying, bringing human life to God's miracles. 

When we grapple and struggle and run and return, we become the kind of people that can channel God's Voice, speaking God's Truth in a way that those around us can hear and respond to (and to tell that story to my boys!)

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